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Astronomy club to offer plan to keep Lake Afton Observatory open

The Lake Afton Public Observatory is set to close after its last program on Aug. 22. (July 14, 2015)
The Lake Afton Public Observatory is set to close after its last program on Aug. 22. (July 14, 2015) File photo

The Lake Afton Public Observatory may not be going dark after all.

About a month after Wichita State University announced its observatory was closing, local astronomy enthusiasts will present an alternative business plan Wednesday to Sedgwick County commissioners to save it.

“It does have history, and we’d like to keep it going,” Fred Gassert said. “It’s an asset to the community.”

Gassert is president of the Kansas Astronomical Observers, a 55-member club made up of factory workers, educators, engineers and business owners, all “avid astronomers in some fashion or another,” he said.

At the Wednesday commission meeting, members of the grassroots effort to save the observatory will propose that volunteers – about 30 have offered to help so far, many of them from the astronomy club – take the program off WSU’s hands. The county would continue to lease the land and building and pay for maintenance but would not have to pay any additional costs to reopen it, Gassert said. Eventually, the plan is to have at least one staff member paid full time.

So far, Gassert said, he’s received positive reactions from the public, the university and county commissioners.

Wichita State announced last month that it was closing the observatory, which for 34 years has housed a 16-inch reflecting telescope and a small museum on space exploration near Lake Afton, about 20 miles southwest of Wichita.

The observatory is operated under a partnership between the county and the university’s Fairmount Center for Science and Mathematics Education. When it first opened, the city and Wichita Public Schools also had stakes in the operation, but both pulled out for financial reasons.

The observatory now costs Wichita State about $50,000 to $70,000 a year, Ron Matson said at the time of the announcement. Matson is the dean of the Fairmount College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at WSU.

The WSU Foundation, which handles the university’s fundraising efforts, created a board dedicated to the Fairmount Center for Science and Mathematics Education, but financial support dried up and attendance at the observatory dropped, Matson said.

“We couldn’t raise enough money to make a difference,” he said. “Thirty-five years ago when all this started, we could raise money for this in a heartbeat because of Boeing. ... All that’s gone.”

To bring the observatory back, Gassert said, new volunteer operators will be able to do their own fundraising with fewer strings attached.

“WSU has extra restraints on anything that has ‘WSU’ tied to it,” he said. “The only people that could do fundraising is the WSU Foundation. ... How come we’re not getting funds from local businesses? If we get the opportunity to run it, then that option is open.

“We’ve got some new display ideas ... to keep it changing and interesting and keep people coming back,” he said of the observatory’s educational area. “There’s a lot more to it than just the telescope.”

The group also plans to freshen up the observatory’s marketing and advertising in the community, because before the announcement last month, Gassert said, many people didn’t know the observatory existed.

Sedgwick County Commissioner Karl Peterjohn said he was surprised to hear of the announcement.

“It’s a wonderful facility,” Peterjohn said. “It would be a loss to the community if they shut it down permanently. I’m interested to see what options are available to keep it open.”

Greg Novacek, director of the Lake Afton Public Observatory, said he supports the effort to save the building from closing.

“It would be nice to see the observatory stay open,” he said. “If they can find a way to do that, then I think that’s good for the community.”

For now, Gassert and his team hope to keep the observatory’s signature telescope until they raise enough money to get a new one.

The university is working through contracts to find a way to leave the observatory’s reflecting telescope – which WSU owns – to the astronomy club for continued use, Matson said, if county commissioners approve of the new business plan Wednesday.

“I think that however long the life is that’s left in that telescope, I’m happy to have it used in the public domain,” Matson said.

The observatory will close its doors after its last program on Aug. 22, at least with the university as its operator.

“We’re willing to saddle that burden and take care of it,” Gassert said. “We all like to pass on what we know to others.”

Reach Shelby Reynolds at 316-268-6514 or sreynolds@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @_shelbyreynolds.

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